U.S. Water News Online
GARDEN CITY, Kan. -- New regulations approved last month to
punish irrigators that overpump their wells have added more
bureaucratic appeal levels, making it harder for state regulators to
suspend water rights.
While the chief water engineer is empowered to now issue a ``cease
and desist order'' for overpumping, words like "suspension" and
"dismissal" are lacking in the new penalties and regulations.
``The (Kansas) Water Appropriation Act has no authority to suspend
water rights,'' said Kansas Agriculture Secretary Jamie Clover Adams.
``We can issue a cease and desist order if you had a blatant
Arid southwest Kansas -- which leads the state in numbers of water
rights -- is a major battleground for much of the state's water
``We have an irrigation-based economy out here. Water is the
economic lifeblood of everybody out here,'' said Steve Frost,
executive director of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management
District, in Garden City. ``It's a golden triangle. Irrigation fuels
the grain supply, which fuels the feedlots, which fuels the
meatpacking plants. Water represents the amount of money it can
Frost oversees water policy and contends with water politics for
the nation's second-largest groundwater district, which covers 5.5
million acres in southwest Kansas. About 97 percent of the district's
water goes toward irrigation, he said.
``We use a lot of water here and we have a lot of water here,''
Frost said. ``The intent is to protect the economy, not destroy it.
This water is producing exports that are going international.''
But Frost said the area has to find ways to get off an
The 19th century water right ritual was a fairly straightforward
one. If a person established a use for the water, the axiom of
``first in time, first in right'' determined water-right ownership.
In 1945, the Kansas Water Appropriation Act established water
rights' def initions, permit procedures, usage regulations, and water
Vested with the power of overseeing water rights is David Pope,
chief engineer for the state of Kansas. His job is within the state's
Division of Water Resources, in the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
``Water itself is owned by the public,'' Pope said. ``People could
seek a permit to appropriate water.''
For southwest Kansas, regulations and rules for water allocation
are based on water availability, spacing of wells, water usage, and
the amount of irrigation water necessary to produce crops during a
12-month period, Pope said.
The explosion of post-World War II farming and irrigation
technology saw a similar leap in water rights' permits in southwest
Kansas. So much so, Pope said, that there have been no new permits
since 1978 for much of the area.
``The area has a large aquifer and historically developed large
amounts of irrigation as compared to the rest of the state,'' he
said. ``Western Kansas has more water in the aquifer, at least they
thought they did.''
There are a total of 30,930 water rights in Kansas, with 9,670
issued for the area's groundwater management district and 2,620 for
Finney County, said Tom Huntzinger, state water appropriations
``Southwest Kansas has way more than their fair share than any
other part of Kansas,'' he said.
The 1945 water act was revised in 1978 to change the role of water
``It shifted gears from a service entity to an enforcement
entity,'' said Mark Rude, local water commissioner for the state's
division of water resources.
In 1988, penalties of $250 per water right were attached to water
use reports found lacking in information.
Starting in the early 1990s, declining water availability and
increasing farm demands could no longer be ignored.
Southwest Kansas farmers were required in 1992 to place water
meters on their wells. Not all districts in Kansas require usage
meters for their irrigators.
Overpumping was to risk state scrutiny and the risk of losing a
water right for a year of farming.
In 1998, a formal state plan was developed on overpumping.
For the last two years, local water authorities have tried to
determine which water rights in southwest Kansas are potentially
being violated in terms of the amount of water usage and water being
pumped from that water right.
Nowhere is the ambivalence regarding water usage violations more
apparent than the state's Blatant Recurring Overpumping program, part
of the 1998 effort to identify and punish farmers consistently
violating their water usage allocations.
Last month, a new set of water rights regulations was amended to
the 1945 act that increased levels of bureaucratic appeals for
As secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, Jamie Clover
Adams oversees all public-sector aspects of farming.
``If there isn't compliance, then the chief engineer will use
enforcement when appropriate,'' she said. ``This gives people ample
opportunity to come into compliance. I don't think we're picking on
Huntzinger, who wrote the new set of penalties for water
overpumping, said they now more ``consistent'' with the water
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